Seduction, Foreplay and Delayed Gratification

A Review of “Labyrinth of the Heart: Giorgione and the Seasons of Sentiment, From Venice to Rome”

/ by Diane Joy Charney

As I write this, the opportunity for a sneak peek into the boudoirs of 16th century Venetians will have passed. This review, however, can give you an idea of what you missed had you chosen to go on this journey into the labyrinths of the Italian heart.

What if a famous Italian art critic gave a titillating review of an art exhibit that had a BIG secret? More about the secret later, but would you have taken the bait?

I found out about this exhibit from an article in F Magazine titled, "From the altar to the bedroom: the erotic swerve of art. And of her muses." ("Dall'altare alla camera da letto: la svolta erotica dell'arte. E delle sue muse" by Gaia Giorgetti)

In the “F” interview with celebrated author and art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, he discusses paintings like those in this exhibit that feature a woman in varying stages of undressing. Whether the model was a courtesan or the wife of the person who had commissioned the piece, this type of art, that underscores female eroticism, was never intended to be displayed to guests in a public space. Sgarbi explains that these sensual paintings were reserved for intimate spaces where they may have even served as an early prototype of marital aids, to heighten desire.

Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe is considered revolutionary for its portrayal of nude women picnicking alongside fully dressed men. But as early as 1502, Giorgione, in his Tempesta, did just that.

What's the world's sexiest painting? For Scarbi, it's Velasquez's La Venere allo specchio (aka The Toilet of Venus, aka The Rokeby Venus) that depicts the prominent nude posterior of a woman admiring her reflected face in a mirror. Although that painting did not make it into this exhibit, it is in harmony with the works that did.

The arrangement of the exhibition itself was unusual. It was divided between two famous Rome attractions, the Palazzo Venezia and the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the former, the key attraction is Giorgione's masterpiece, I due amici (The Two Friends), a soulful work that appears to emphasize the state of mind of a lovesick young man, whose friend (shown in the background) does not suffer similarly. The exhibit commentary links this painting to the cultural climate in Venice--a hedonistic period that marked a renewed interest in the poetry of Petrarch, and an endless preoccupation with the nature of love.

The Palazzo Venezia part of the exhibit cleverly juxtaposed the Bronzino portrait of Eleonora di Toledo and her son Giovanni with a large portrait of that son as an adult, and then a double portrait in the same pose that features the adult son's chunky mistress with his own son.

At the end of this first exhibit venue, the visitor arrived at a darkened room of the palazzo that has trompe-l'oeil pillars on the walls. Projected onto the wall were fascinating parts of the paintings we had seen, but these were blown up to room size. At first one sees waving trees and foliage against the backdrop of the pillars. And in subsequent moments set to evocative music, parts of the paintings emerge. The effect of this sound and video installation (The Garden of Dreams by Luca Brinchi and Daniele Spanò) was mesmerizing.

Glad to have had this opportunity to visit Palazzo Venezia and excited by this first part of the exhibit, I enjoyed the 20-minute walk to the Castel Sant'Angelo, an edifice that held the bulk of the 45 paintings, 27 sculptures and 36 illustrated volumes and manuscripts that comprised the show. These included works on loan by Renaissance masters Titian, Tintoretto, Bronzino, Romanino, Moretto, Carracci, and Licino. According to the brochure, "These works lead the visitor into one of those existential labyrinths that every human being must grapple with, and which is reflected in amorous experiences, from falling in love to getting married, from abandonment to nostalgia."

Here's where the previously-alluded-to BIG secret comes in. Nobody mentioned what it would require to get to see this part of the show. Upon arrival at the truly monumental, multi-story Castel Sant'Angelo, the unsuspecting art lover is herded into a stairway by a greeter who, with a mysterious Mona Lisa-esque smile, assures us that the exhibit is just ahead on the next floor. HA! We have fallen into a trap that will lead us up and down the countless staircases, over and through the many stories of inner and outer spaces of this edifice that took centuries to construct, and that felt like just as many to penetrate. The sparse staff had clearly been instructed to, with a wave of the hand, cheerfully evade the questions of perplexed visitors wondering if they would live to see the exhibit. When, fully 30 minutes, later we reached the exhibition, I began to see the true synchrony between this endless, labyrinthine forced march and the "Labyrinths of the Heart" I had come to see.

Memorable features of this part of the show included the fascinating cultural variety in the double portraits of couples, and a sculpture of a beautiful female head by a mystery artist (the accompanying label was blank). For aficionados of the bare bosom, there was an entire room devoted to women in the process of unveiling themselves, notably Tintoretto's Portrait of a Woman Revealing her Breast.

The aforementioned blank label was a reminder of the utter lack of publicity for this exhibit. Up until the last minute, I wondered if the exhibit actually existed, since there was no mention of it on the websites of the two buildings that housed it. This problem is very “Italian.” Wonderful events may be happening, but just try to find out about them…

(Future art-loving visitors would do well to check the site which, more reliably than most, lists what is happening in the city.)

At the end of the day, I found out that I had walked 17,318 steps (7.4 miles) to see this show. Was it worth it? Well, it was an unforgettable experience. But would I have done it had someone spilled the beans about how delayed the gratification was going to be? Hmm... My husband's answer was, "No way." But even though I'm the kind of person who, having put something delicious in her shopping cart will be eating it in the car on her way home, I am happy to have toured the labyrinths of the heart of two gigantic historic buildings that, at the end of this odyssey, offered some nicely artistic dessert.

Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.